The door of no return in West Africa

The Toronto Star | Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

goree

GORÉE ISLAND, SENEGAL—There is a door on the shores of this island that looks out to the Atlantic. There isn’t much to see from it, just blue waters glittering in the hot West African sun, the pleasant lapping of waves upon rock, a naked horizon that, for a dreamer, would inspire a sense of possibility. Yet for thousands of captive slaves that passed through this “Door of No Return,” the view meant being ripped from their homeland, a horrifying voyage across an ocean, and a cruel fate.

Gorée Island (Île de Gorée) is 3 km from mainland Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. Today, the inhabited island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a respite from Dakar’s urban hustle and on-your-toes intensity. As I arrive by ferry I see lofty palms and fuchsia bougainvilleas clinging to brightly-painted colonial buildings adorned with old world shutters and terracotta roofs. Children splash around at the beach. For centuries, Gorée served as a trading post and small port to ship goods—including human cargo—on the Atlantic trade route.

Human cargo.

Two words that should never be together, the sight of which gives me the same reflexive chill I receive upon entering Maison des Esclaves—“House of Slaves.”

At first glance the building is deceptively pleasing with its stucco walls of sun-faded coral and yellow hues. Two curved stairs lead from a small courtyard to breezy quarters upstairs. Below, however, are the cells—the cells that warehoused people. There are several of them, each no more than a few meters wide. To walk into them is to walk back into the recesses of a dark, dark history.

I reluctantly step into the chamber labeled jeune filles (“young girls”). Plunged into darkness, I blink, then squint. A few seconds later it all sinks in. I can barely stave off the throat-tightening panic of claustrophobia, the overwhelming sadness.

In the unseen world outside, a sea bird unleashes a sharp cry.

Originally built by the Dutch around 1776, the house is a reconstruction that now serves as a museum and memorial. Numbers of how many slaves were imprisoned here vary wildly. Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, the museum’s passionate curator for over 40 years until his death in 2009, painted the chilling story of departures through the Door of No Return to tourists, claiming that millions upon millions were shipped from the island. Academics and historians now vehemently dispute these figures.

26,000 were recorded to have passed through the small island from the 15th to 19th centuries, a rough average of a hundred per year. Therefore, Gorée Island’s role in the Atlantic slave trade was minor compared to cities like St. Louis, 320 km north of Dakar. With its strategic position near the mouth of the Senegal River, St. Louis exported 10,000 slaves annually. Depots like this dotted the entire coast of West Africa.

It is also highly unlikely that slaves would actually have departed from the infamous ocean door. Cynics deride it all as a tourist trap.

Numbers, figures, counts—quantification has a limit on what it can impress. I travelled to a place to learn the historical facts but left with an understanding of what it means.

Undeniable is the symbolic power the House of Slaves and the island has taken on. The black diaspora from America and all over the world make pilgrimage here. Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have visited. Pope John Paul II came in 1992 and asked forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s role in Africa’s enslavement.

The experience is an emotional one. From its position on the edge of the westernmost point of Africa, Gorée Island is a bridge between continents, a hand reaching out for all to connect and reflect on a sorrowful past. The house is a touchstone for those whose ancestors were taken from their home, wherever in Africa that may have been, wherever in Africa they may have departed from. When they come here, they do what their ancestors could not: Return.

Cindy Fan is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Toronto. www.cindyfan.com

Just the Facts

ARRIVING: The Dakar-Gorée ferry takes 20 minutes and departs every 1-2 hours from 6 a.m.-11 p.m. (round trip $10 U.S.). Air France flies from Paris CDG to Dakar daily.

SLEEPING: High end: Le Terrou-Bi Hotel is a 4-star hotel with private beach and views overlooking the Atlantic. Rooms start at 250 euros (about $337). www.terroubi.com. Radisson Blu Hotel: Contemporary and comfortable. 200 euros (about $270) and up.www.radissonblu.com/hotel-dakar. Mid-range: Sénég’anne: This impeccably clean and lovely B&B in the Almadies neighbourhood of Dakar has only 5 rooms. Price ranges from 78-116 euros ($105-$156). www.seneganne.com.

DINING: Café de Rome: A pricey brasserie-style restaurant to satisfy cravings for authentic French food. 15-40 euros ($20-$54). 30 Bd de la République. Keur N’Deye: Inexpensive, authentic Senegalese food. A kora player performs most nights. 68 Rue Vincens, Central Dakar.Lalibela: A charming (and hard to find) rooftop Ethiopian Restaurant. Pointe E, Rue Louga. Chez Loutcha: A great introduction to Cape Verdean and Euro-African cuisine. 101 Rue Moussé Diop, Central Dakar.

View the story on The Toronto Star’s website here.